10-99 in Cabrini by Jim

Sometimes a bad decision makes for a good story.

The Chicago Police Department was never very big on using “ten-signals” when dispatchers were communicating with units on the street. There are three however, that have been in use for as long as I can remember.

“Ten-one” is Chicago’s euphemism for a police officer calling for help. It is perhaps the most critical call an officer can make and is taken with the utmost seriousness by all units on the street. If you are watching the new television series, Chicago PD, there seems to be at least one “ten-one” on every show. In truth of course, if you monitor your scanner, you find that it is not taken lightly by the working police and is very seldom used. To my knowledge Chicago is the only department that uses that ten signal designation.

“Ten four” is universally understood by any law enforcement officer in the nation. It simply means “okay.”  Chicago puts a slight twist on this universal ten-signal however, because in our fair city it means “okay and we are a two person unit.”

Which brings us to “ten ninety-nine” which simply means “okay and I am riding alone.” This terminology is meant to alert the dispatcher that assignment of an assist unit might be appropriate. It works well—most of the time.

With less than a year on the street, I was working a two-person beat car in the infamous Cabrini housing projects on our city’s near north side. We were working the Saturday-Sunday midnight shift, midnight to 8:30 am. I am sure the dispatcher had the line-up and that it designated us a ten-four unit. But for some reason that escapes me these many years later, at some point during the tour of duty, my partner was excused and I became a ten-ninety-nine unit. There was a heavy police presence in our district and although I was bit nervous, I resolved to wait for my assist unit before exiting the squad on any assignment. I would be fine.

It was nearing the end of my tour of duty and it was very cold. The bad guys seemed to have retired for the night and the radio was extremely quiet. Nothing was going on.

“Eighteen-eleven, take the stolen auto report, 1117 Cleveland, apartment 1407. See a Mrs. Washington”

“Ten ninety-nine,” I responded and I paused, waiting for the assignment of an assist unit. This was the notorious Cabrini housing project after all.

And I waited. The radio was silent. So I summoned my five whole months of police experience and considered the situation. A stolen auto report; under normal circumstances this would be an assignment for a one-man car, but this was Cabrini.  At this hour of the morning and given the extreme cold, there was no one on the street, but this was Cabrini. Maybe the dispatcher, with eons more experience than me, divined that circumstances did not indicate an assist necessary, but this was Cabrini. It never occurred to me that he had my unit marked as a two-man car and that he might have missed my ten-ninety nine response.

So I pondered the assignment as I drove slowly over to the Cleveland address. What to do?

I sat in front of the building for a few moments and looked things over. There was not a soul to be seen. The complainant was a woman, so that sounded legit I thought. I donned my gloves and put a blank stolen auto case report on my clip board and trudged toward the building. My lifeline, my radio, remained firmly affixed to the dashboard of my squad—there were no personal portable radios in 1967.

I was in luck; the elevator for the even-number floors was in service, urine soaked, but in service.

I cautiously exited the elevator on fourteen and looked both directions toward the stairwells at each end of the exterior walkway. The soft glow over the lake to the east had matured into actual rays of sun. They filtered their way through the downtown buildings as individual shafts of light, creating a surreal stage lighting effect on the deserted 14th floor ramp. No one was in sight. Apartment 1407 would be all the way down to my left, near the stairs. I approached, knocked on the door and waited for Mrs. Washington to respond.

Suddenly I felt a silent presence and turned to discover three men standing just behind me. They grinned, not a friendly grin, but a we got ya type of smirk. The hairs on the back of my neck raised. With clipboard in hand, my revolver hanging off my equipment belt was actually closer to their hands than mine. My mind raced. I was a tactical disadvantage. Maybe a spin to my left to put my weapon out of reach? But I knew for certain it would be a short futile struggle.

Suddenly Mrs. Washington opened her apartment door and the five us froze for just an instant. She looked and saw a uniformed police officer surrounded by three men with insolent grins. What next? The woman gave them a hard look and then did something amazing; she admitted me to her apartment and then quickly closed the door firmly behind me and turned the deadbolt lock.

“Mrs. Washington?” I asked, trying vainly to sound nonchalant.

“Yes,” she answered slowly.

“Do you know those men?”

“No.”

“May I use you phone?”

“I think you’d better,” she replied.

I dialed a confidential number that routed me directly into the zone two dispatch consoles.

“Hey, this is eighteen-eleven. I’m at 1117 taking a stolen auto report. I think you better send me an assist so I can get out of this building.”

“Are you ten-ninety-nine?” he asked incredulously.

“Well… yeah.”

“Chuck, have you got eighteen-eleven in Cabrini as a ten-ninety-nine? he asked the dispatcher.

“Eleven is a ten-four unit… it says so right here on my line-up,” answered the dispatcher.

“No, my partner was excused at 0300,” I interrupted.

“Oh shit,” was the response on the telephone. “We’ll send you an assist—stay where you’re at until they get there. You’re at 1117 in 1407?”

“That’s right.”

“Now, Mrs. Washington, sorry for the delay. Can we start this stolen auto report while I wait for some backup?”


A Veterans’ Day Tribute

Note: This story was first posted here in Oct 2012. We repeat it here in honor of Veterans’ Day

Ralph's Medals

Ralph’s Medals

I lifted the frame reverently from the wall—I was holding a bit a family history and I knew it. The custom antique gold frame held ribbons, medals and a citation mounted on a green felt background. They had been awarded to my wife’s cousin Ralph almost 67 years ago. I only knew Ralph in his later years and he was a character with character.  He was without a doubt one of the most interesting and honorable men I have ever met.

* * * *

Pfc. Ralph Meinking crouched low in the snow and bitter north wind. He was just a few miles from the town of Bennwihr in the far northeastern corner of France, over 4,000 miles from home sweet home Chicago. Just ahead was the 254th Infantry Regiment’s objective for the day, a giant mound of earth that would become known as Bloody Mountain. This day however, Tuesday, January 23, 1945, it was simply known on the military charts as Hill 216.

Ralph was 31 years old and he was a Conscientious Objector. During World War II, under the law, objectors had two choices — they could go into the military but serve in the medical corps or other non-combat duties, or they were required to do “alternative service” here at home that was “work of national importance.” Ralph chose to serve in the medical corps and he wore the white arm band with the bright red cross of a Combat Medic. He was assigned to the 254th Infantry Regiment, Company D and they were preparing to assault Hill 216.

Today an American flag flies 24 hours a day atop the hill at a monument erected by the Rhin -Danube Association. Known as the Sigolsheim, France Memorial, it honors the soldiers of all American units that fought alongside of French Soldiers in the First French Army. But this bitter cold January day the Germans occupied a heavily fortified position at the top of the hill. It afforded them a commanding view of the surrounding country.

At 0645 hours, 15 minutes before “H” hour, our supporting artillery began firing in preparation for the assault. Minds and bodies became tense as the troops awaited the signal to move forward. They had seen some of war but it always had been they who awaited the enemy in their defensive positions; now it was the enemy’s turn to wait in a hole—theirs to attack. At 0700 hours they silently and unseen began to move through the deep snow, their snow capes blending in perfectly with the world of white which surrounded them.

Snow Capes (Used by permission)

For a few moments after they heard the dull explosions and saw their comrades lying on the ground, they did not realize what was happening. No shell scream, no mortar whistle accompanied the bursts. Then their minds began to work once more and they recognized the barrier the crafty Germans had erected—a field of the tiny, foot-shearing Schuh Mines. The heavy snow fall of the preceding days coupled with brisk winds had perfectly hidden the mines and the footprints of the soldiers who laid them. Pfc. Ralph Meinking had his work cut out for him as the assault continued and dead and dying soldiers littered the battlefield.

Besides wreaking physical havoc on the advancing troops of the Regiment, the mines served a second purpose; the sound of them exploding alerted the German soldiers that they were under attack. Mortar fire began to pour into the minefield, quickly followed small arms fire as well as machine guns. The concentration was extremely heavy and the assaulting force began to receive even larger numbers of casualties from this shelling as well as from the Schuh Mines. Medic Meinking was working feverishly to aid as many soldiers as he was able when he felt a searing pain in his buttocks. Shrapnel from a mortar had ripped into Ralph’s backside, but he continued to work as rapidly as he could. One, two  four, then it was ten other members of his unit were triaged, treated and sheltered as best as Ralph could accomplish before he himself fell to the pain and loss of blood from his wounds.

* * * *

Some thirty-five years later I had occasion to meet Ralph for the first time at one of his well-known annual birthday parties. I was a newlywed, my wife being a former Daughter of Charity as well as Ralph’s cousin. At the time I was working homicide for the Chicago Police Department. Ralph always held his parties at local German restaurants along Chicago’s Lincoln Avenue. He insisted on just one mandate for his parties—he designated where and who you sat with. To say his group of friends was eclectic would be a gross understatement. At my first party, I found myself sitting directly across from an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union. My bride, the former Catholic nun sat across from an Episcopal priest. Ralph, as always, sat at the bar, peering over his brood with his cigar and double martini. Both my wife and I vowed to never miss one of his parties.

We took to inviting Ralph to our home for dinner with our family. It gave us more time to visit on a personal level. Ralph was an avowed Socialist but vehemently anti-Communist. (There’s grist for spirited conversations!) He was a faculty member at Roosevelt University. He had been regular at Chicago’s “Bughouse Square” where he often mounted a soapbox to espouse his political views. Politically, he and I were about as diametrically opposed as possible. He was both articulate and good-humored and I always looked forward to his visits… and his birthday parties.

He was self-deprecating and totally without ego or arrogance.

“Ralph, I hear from the relatives that you got a Purple Heart in World War II… what was that about?” I asked one day.

“Ahhh… I got shot in the ass kid, nothin’ to talk about,” he answered.

“You were a medic?”

“Yeah!” he laughed. “Hey, did they tell you about the time I was running from one guy to another in the dark when I suddenly realized that everyone around me was speaking German? I kept my head down, finished one more and then hightailed it back to where I thought our lines were.”

He laughed heartily at himself and took a long drag on his cigar and sip from his martini.

My mother-in-law was a favorite of his and as he aged he confided to her that he was dying.

“There won’t be anything to leave you… I wish there was.”

“Ralph,” my mother-in-law replied, “The only thing I want is your Purple Heart and ribbons.”

“Now why would anyone want that!” he replied.

Never-the-less when he passed sometime later, there was an envelope with my mother-in-law’s name on it. Inside she found not only his campaign ribbons and Purple Heart medal, but also a Silver Star medal along with the citation for “magnificent courage and outstanding gallantry under fire” during the assault on Hill 216.

Pfc. Ralph Meinking: Patriot, Conscientious Objector, Combat Medic, Silver Star recipient… and oh yes… a Socialist.

“Ahhh… I got shot in the ass kid, nothin’ to talk about.”

We miss you Ralph… you were indeed one of the most fascinating persons I have ever known and at the time I didn’t even know your whole story.

Authors note: Details of the battle for Hill 216 and snow capes picture are from the 254th Infantry Regiment’s website and are used here with the gracious permission of the webmaster of the 63rd Infantry website, Fred Clinton. In email correspondence Fred also indicated that he served in the same company with Ralph and further that the 254th Regiment received a Presidential Unit Citation for their heroic actions in the battles for Colmar, France.  The regiment also received a French Croix de Guerre with palm for actions in the Colmar Pocket.


You’re Gonna Get Hurt

Most occupations carry their own specific hazards. The automobile mechanic knows that sooner or later a wrench is going to slip and he’s going to skin some knuckles. The carpenter knows that once in a great while he’s going to hit his thumb with a hammer. And so it is with law enforcement officers, except the specific nature and severity of their injury can vary widely from the mundane to the catastrophic. I don’t think most officers spend much time contemplating how they might get hurt, although I’ve heard more than one express their greatest fear is that of an automobile accident. Strangely, none that I have ever talked to expects to get shot.

I don’t think my history of injuries on duty (IOD) is anything more than the unexciting. My first documented injury occurred in the police gym at the Training Academy. I am fond of telling other officer’s that the infamous Stanley S. broke my foot. Stanley probably caused more widespread hurt during his gym classes, to more officers, than any other person in the department. But the truth of the matter is, Stanley didn’t do it. My partner broke my foot during an “over the shoulder toss,” a judo maneuver that to my knowledge no officer has ever used on the street.  As he held me around the waist and my body crossed over his shoulder, instead of releasing me and allowing me to fall flatout to the mat, at the very last moment he held on to my waist momentarily in an effort to “let me down easy” as he put it. The result was I was released at a 45 degree angle and my entire body weight impacted the mat on the outside of my left foot, causing a hairline fracture in the fifth metatarsal bone.

Hairline or not, the pain was excruciating. Two cadets were summoned and I hopped out on their shoulders to one of the cadet’s Volkswagen Beetle. Somehow they maneuvered me, painfully I might add, into the rear seat of the Bug and drove me to the Medical Section at 11th and State. Again I hopped into the waiting room where I sat and waited for over two hours. Eventually one of the nurses took notice of my presence and after inquiring as to why I was there, called a wagon to transport me to the hospital.

After another hour’s wait two First District wagon men ambled into the waiting room. They were like cartoon caricatures of what a Chicago Police wagon men should look like—husky… no overweight might be more accurate, slightly unkempt, with well-worn leather that belied the fact that it might once have actually been black. The nurse gave them the particulars and they looked over my Chicago Police recruit khakis. By this time I was weak from the pain, probably on the verge of passing out. I stared at them, glassy-eyed.

“Police officer?” one of them said. “We don’t haul no police officers. We haul drunks, we haul stiffs, we haul stinkers, but we don’t haul police officers.”

“Well what are we supposed to do?” snapped the nurse.

“Call an ambulance!” said the wagon man. “Like they should have done at that silly-ass Police Academy.”

And so it came to pass that some four hours after my injury, I found myself in a Fire Department ambulance, careening south on State Street toward Mercy Hospital with siren screaming. I pleaded with them to slow down to no avail. They were transporting an injured Chicago Police officer and they were on a mission!

At Mercy Hospital I was triaged and put on the waiting list for x-ray. It was just past midnight when they taped my foot, gave me some pain pills and crutches, warned me not to drive and told me I could go home. I was single, living alone. I hobbled into the police room and asked a beat officer how I could get home.

“Call your unit,” he responded as he dashed out to answer a call.

Call my unit? The Training Academy? At 12:15 AM?

So I phoned a high school friend who groused a bit at being awakened on a work night. He drove to Mercy Hospital from the northwest side. We left my car at the Academy. It was 1:30 AM when he helped me into my apartment. I fell into my bed fully clothed. At 10:30 the following morning, the door buzzer rang incessantly. I slowly made my way to the door to find a district Lieutenant checking on me to be certain I was not abusing the medical role.

Many years later, as a Lieutenant at the Police Academy, I determined that it was now department policy to call for an ambulance any time a recruit was injured. I added one more paragraph to the policy mandating that an Academy Staff member be assigned to any injured recruit until it could be ascertained that they were being admitted, or that family members were at the hospital even if it required overtime.

My first injury on the street was more dramatic but no less mundane and with an added element of embarrassment. It was summertime and we were in short sleeved shirts. We responded to a call of a “man with a gun” in the Cabrini projects where the high rises bordered on what we called the low rises. When we arrived we saw a man with a shotgun in a cinder play lot and as we exited our car he fired a shot in our direction and turned and ran west toward the low rises. He had a good lead on us, but we drew our weapons and ran after him. There were children playing on the far side of the lot and it was impossible to get a clear shot at him without endangering the kids. I ran, revolver in hand, to the point my body got ahead of my feet. I sensed I was going down and I kept my finger out of the trigger guard and attempted to tilt it skyward. I hit the cinders hard and fast with my right forearm and knee taking the brunt of the resulting six foot skid. The gun did not discharge but the sharp black cinders abraded a great deal of skin and left behind black residue. My arm took the worst of it and was bleeding. My right knee was only a bit better, having been protected by my trousers. It really hurt.

At the Henrotin Hospital, the nurses worked to clean the wounds as best they could and when they finished the only cinders remaining were deep in the wound on my knee. The doctor came in with a kit which he unwrapped on a mini tray-table.

“What’s that?” I asked, pointing at an item that looked suspiciously like a small wire brush.

“It’s a wire brush,” he replied. “I’m going to get those cinders out of your knee.”

“No you’re not!”

“If I don’t get them out, you’ll have a mark like a tattoo and you run the risk of infection.”

“I’ll tell you what doc,” I replied. “I’ll live with the tattoo and you do your magic to prevent infection.”

He shrugged and put the wire brush down.

Back at the station I reported to the Watch Commander who excused me for the day and told me I would not be permitted to return to work until the Medical Section cleared me. On my way out, the desk sergeant handed me a teletype boldly listing my name, star number and district of assignment.

ATTENTION – ATTENTION – ATTENTION – ATTENTION – ATTENTION

INJURED OFFICER NOW AT HENROTIN HOSPITAL

CUTS ON HAND AND KNEES

I cringed, knowing it would take weeks to outlive what my fellow officers perceived to be clever jokes.

The doc was right; I carried a tattoo-like series of black parallel lines on my knee for many years, but eventually they disappeared. Oral antibiotics and antibacterial ointments crushed any lingering infection and I was cleared for return to work about a week later.

Perhaps my most serious IOD was never reported to the department. On thefirst day of the King riots in April of 1968 a fellow officer braced himself on my shoulder as we were pinned down by sniper fire from a Cabrini high rise. I didn’t know he was using me as a support as he prepared to fire a shotgun blast at the building. The 12 gauge discharged inches from my left ear literally knocking me off my feet and causing ringing for over a week. We were in full scale urban warfare, what would I report?

“Pardon me doctor but my ear is ringing.”

So I ignored it and it went away, but unbeknownst to me it would leave me with permanent noise induced hearing loss in my left ear.

Those incidents were what I call spontaneous injuries, that is situations that develop quickly where you are thrust into action without the benefit of analyzing what is about to happen. There is another type of incident where circumstances advance at a more rational pace, where the officer has an opportunity to at least fleetingly consider what is about to occur. Some of those are what I call “oh boy, I’m about to get my ass kicked” moments.

I was working the tactical unit in soft clothes with my partner John one warm summer Saturday. We were in the Old Town area heading east on North Avenue, approaching Wells Street. In a doorway, Brent Marshall, a stock broker from Detroit was punching his girlfriend repeatedly in the face. Her glasses broke as she vainly tried to shield herself from his blows. As I curbed the unmarked squad, John jumped from the passenger seat and shouted.

“Police!”

The girl fell to the ground and Brent took off running east on North Avenue. John ran to aid the girl and I jumped back into the car. Brent turned south through an empty lot at Wells Street and I drove about 25 yard past him and jumped from the car to confront him.

“Police! You’re under arrest!” I shouted at a somewhat surprised Brent Marshall.

He stopped and assumed the traditional pugilist stance. I had a moment to size him up. He was about 5-11, medium build, flat athletic stomach and biceps that strained the edge of the sleeves on his short sleeved shirt. I was probably about the same size and weight but I strongly suspected that I had at least met my match. I was about to get my ass kicked.

At that point in my career, I was probably in the best shape of my life. John and I worked out regularly at our local YMCA, weights and swimming before we headed off to work each day. The two of us up against Mister Marshall would be a struggle but we would prevail. But by myself? Yes, there wasn’t much doubt that I was about to get my ass kicked.

A small crowd had quietly gathered around us as Marshall and I faced off for a moment. I pulled my handcuffs from my belt and wrapped them around the knuckles of my right hand.

“Turn around, drop to your knees and put your hands behind your back,” I said loudly.

Brent did a little boxer dance on his toes as if to say, “It ain’t gonna happen.”

The crowd waited expectantly. I moved a half-step closer.

“Come on, you don’t wanna do this,” I said with as much confidence as I could muster.

Marshall took a wide swing at me that most likely would have at least broken my jaw, but he missed his mark. He lost his balance for just a moment and I realized that he was drunk. Maybe I had half a chance. I countered with a right to his jaw. The handcuffs connected, firmly I thought, but he barely flinched. He shook it off and eyed me just a bit more warily. The fight was on and I was afraid the shot to the jaw had just sobered him up.

Suddenly from the back of the crowd came the prolonged scream of a banshee. I glanced up and saw John—I would later swear that he was at least ten feet in the air—as he came crashing down on Marshall’s shoulders. The two of them crumpled to the ground and I put my knee in Marshall’s back. Before he could collect himself I had him cuffed, tightly, very tightly.

When you are about to get your ass kicked it helps if you have a super-hero as a partner. Decades later, John and I were reminiscing and I told him this story. As I got to the end, with him ten, no maybe even twelve feet in the air hurtling down upon the hapless Brent Marshall, he was smiling broadly as he shook his head—he had absolutely no recollection of the incident.

Okay, maybe he didn’t jump quite that high…


The King Riots—the first day

“Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear – not absence of fear.”

 –Mark Twain

Thursday, April 4, 1968 I was working the Tactical Unit out of the 018th District. My “baby furlough,” eleven days of combined regular days off and accumulated compensatory time would begin the next day.  My wife and I grabbed a quick bite to eat at a local restaurant and took in “No Way to Treat a Lady” starring Rod Steiger. On the way home we stopped by my folks… my mom was standing outside as we pulled up.

“Martin Luther King has been killed,” she said with shock and disbelief in her voice.

I stared dumbly at her, across the passenger seat and out the open car window.

“Wow!” was the brainiest comment that I could mutter. Both the immediate and the historical implications were beyond my comprehension. I had been a cop less than two years and the first several months of that was spent at the Police Academy. To say I was green would be an understatement. It would be a major news story for sure, but any personal implications were totally beyond me at that moment.

Twenty minutes later my wife and I entered our west side apartment on a quiet street directly across from Merrick Park. The phone was ringing as we entered. My wife answered.

“It’s for you,” she said. “Your sergeant.”

“Padar!” he said without any preliminaries. “Report for roll call at 10AM tomorrow in the tact office…leather jacket and helmet… figure on a 12 hour shift.”

“But I start baby furlough tomorrow,” I protested.

“Not anymore!” he snapped. “All days off are cancelled.”

“Leather jacket?” I questioned. The spring days were getting warmer and leather jackets were optional.

“Yes,” he said impatiently. “They tend to do better with bottles and rocks—see you at ten hundred tomorrow.” He hung up.

For the first time my pulse quickened just a bit. Bottles and rocks?

“What was that all about?” asked my wife.

“Ah… they’re cancelling days off tomorrow because of this King thing. I have to be at work at 10.” I didn’t mention anything about the bottles and rocks.

I called my partner John to make sure he realized we would be carpooling tomorrow. He and I had been working together for several months having started together in a beat car and then being invited to join the tactical unit as partners. We hit it off from the first time we worked together and of course we jumped at the chance to work tactical together. We had complimentary styles for working the street and that made us a better team than most.

I was newly married and John was engaged to be married the following month. The girls knew one another and more importantly they liked each other. That made it more than nice for the four of us. We would remain “police family” forever.

The next morning, the mood in the tactical office was somber. The phones were ringing madly as the brass wrestled with how to allocate manpower. With more than double the number of personnel on hand there were not enough cars available to provide us transportation. That problem was momentarily solved when we learned that the public schools were being released at 11 AM. A group of us were loaded into police wagons and transported to Waller High School (now the Lincoln Park High School) at Orchard and Armitage.

As the students left the school they were greeted by helmeted police standing in the street. We eyed each other warily, each side not knowing what to expect from the other. We attached ourselves to a cluster than began to walk south on Orchard Street. As we proceeded, individuals dropped off, apparently heading for home. By the time we reached North Avenue they had dispersed.

John grabbed me and in a moment of spontaneous genius we flagged down a passing squad and got a lift back to the station. It was genius because when we got back to the tactical office, we were given a squad and told to report to the vicinity of the Cooley High School, at Division and Sedgwick, on the edge of the Cabrini Housing projects. We had a car and a radio—we were ready for action.

As we neared Cooley High School we monitored a call of police officer’s calling for help at 1159 North Cleveland, a Cabrini high-rise. We pulled into the lot west of the building and immediately found ourselves in the company of several other officers, all pinned down by sniper fire from the building. John and I scrambled out of the squad and took cover on the far side of the car. We crouched and peered up at the myriad of windows, but outside of frightened people looking back at us, there was nothing to see. The gunfire from the building had ceased momentarily.

I squatted at the driver’s door of the squad and peered intently at the windows. I felt an arm resting on my left shoulder as another officer steadied himself and out of the corner of my eye I caught the familiar blue of a police shirt. Where’s his leather jacket I wondered to myself?

A moment later the world exploded into the left side of my head. I thought that somehow I had been shot and I reeled to my right, went down to the pavement and put my hand to my left ear, fully expecting it to have been shot off. There was no blood and side of my head felt intact, but the inside of my ear hurt badly and it was ringing loudly. The officer leaning on me had a shotgun and as he braced himself on my shoulder, he discharged the weapon just inches from my ear. He quickly moved to the hood of the car and readied himself for another shot. I felt as though I had lost my hearing in that ear, except for the ringing. Years later I would be diagnosed with classic noise induced hearing loss in my left ear, but for the moment I just wanted to get away from that building and that officer. There seemed to be a momentary pause in gunfire from the building. John and I scrambled into the car and sped north through the lot and out onto Division Street just in time to hear us being paged on the radio.

I was encouraged that I had been able to hear the radio and tried to put the ringing out of my mind. We were being asked to report to the field lieutenant at our district desk.

At the desk, our lieutenant introduced us to two young men dressed in dark suits. They were the owners of the currency exchange just a few doors west of the Cooley High School. Our assignment was to escort them to their place of business and standby with them until they emptied cash from the safe on the premises.  None of us were particularly enthused with the task, and the businessmen appeared to be petrified.

“Do you really want to do this?” we asked.

“Do you think you can help us?” they replied.

That was the wrong question to ask two young cops. Of course we could help them!

On our way to the currency exchange our squad took some rocks and bottles and I swerved to avoid them as best I could. We passed an occasional burning building with no fire department in sight. It was then we noticed that our businessmen had disappeared. We turned to find them lying atop one another on the rear floor of the car. At their place of business, I nosed the squad up on the sidewalk close to the door of their building. Strangely it was still intact. John and I peered into the back seat.

“Do you still want to do this?” we asked

They peeked up from the floor and saw the door just a few feet from the car.

“Yeah… ya think…?” they asked hesitantly.

“Get your keys ready and move when I tell you,” said John as he exited the side of the vehicle closest of the building. John went to the rear of the car with his revolver drawn and fired two shots in the air.

“Go! Go! Go!” he shouted

I scrambled out with them and they fumbled only momentarily with the keys in the relative shelter to the recessed doorway. It was going well, but my pulse was racing and my left ear was still ringing loudly. Once inside they unlocked more gates and when they reached the safe they opened it and emptied bundles of cash into a duffel bag in record time. We ran crouched back to the squad. They jumped into the back seat and promptly took refuge atop one another on the floor. John and I jumped into the front and exchanged an anxious glance. Almost done… and then, we were on our way. Back at the station we had to invite them several times to crawl out of the car.

In the station lot John and I looked worriedly to the west where black clouds of smoke rose high into the sky. Inside the station we scanned teletype messages and noted reports of widespread rioting and fires in the districts. I called my wife and learned that she was at our apartment, having been released early from work. John called his fiancé. She was in their west side apartment at the edge of the city, but just off of Madison Street.

John and I weighed the options for the girls. My apartment on the quiet little side street across from a small park seemed preferable to John’s place so close to Madison Street. The girls agreed. John’s fiancé would go to our apartment and they would stay together until John and I were released from duty.

The shortage of cars was solved by assigning four men to a car. We picked up a third man, Bennie. His partner was out-of-town. We would spend the balance of our tour as a three-man unit. Bennie had checked out a carbine rifle so we had additional firepower on board.

From the station we took Chicago Avenue west toward the projects, turning north on Larrabee Street. John was driving, I was front passenger and Bennie was in the back with the carbine. The street was littered with rocks and bottles and as we approached the 1015-1017 Larrabee building I saw a man with a shotgun in the building breezeway. He stepped forward, raised the gun and aimed towards our car. I slid to the left pushing hard into John just as he fired at us. John swerved the squad away as if he could somehow avoid the gunfire. The man fired directly at us, but he was probably over fifty yards away and the buckshot load rattled harmlessly against the side of our car as we sped north on Larrabee. We exclaimed simultaneously. Bennie wanted to go back, but the man had retreated back into the building.

We paused at the fire station at Division Street to catch our breath and allow our hearts to retreat back into our chest cavities. Inside the fire station we took a short break and called the girls to confirm that they were now together at my apartment nestled away from main streets. Back on the road, we headed north to North Avenue. We needed to be away from Cabrini for a while, at least until our pulses recovered to a somewhat normal level. We spent the next couple of hours in the Old Town area responding to sporadic incidents of looting. It turned out to be a fruitless task. Looters would flee upon our arrival, but once we left they would return. We just didn’t have the manpower to remain in any one place for long.

Dispatch put out a call for all available units to report to Oak and Larrabee, with instructions to approach from the north per orders of a Deputy Superintendent on the scene. When we arrived and looked to the south where hours before we had been fired on. It was obvious the climate had changed considerably. One lone gunman had been replaced by several hundred people milling about and looting the supermarket on the west side of Larrabee.

The Deputy called us to assemble around him and he explained that we were going to form a skirmish line and take back the street. I could not believe that he was going to commit us to such a foolhardy scheme. We were outnumbered at least ten to one. It would be absolute suicide for us. Most of us had completed riot formation training in preparation for the Democratic National Convention several months from now, but I don’t think anyone ever believed that we would ever use it, much less that it would work.

Never-the-less, we formed a single skirmish line of widely spaced men that stretched from sidewalk to sidewalk. Behind us were three wagons and about a half-dozen more men. The crowd eyed us warily. In theory, we would march at half-step with batons at the ready. The crowd would disperse, and those that didn’t would be allowed to penetrate the line only to be arrested and put into the wagons at the rear. Yes, we had practiced this at the local armory. Yes we understood the theory behind the formation. But no one expected it to work—at least not me. Well… except for the Deputy, and he positioned himself with us at the center of the line and gave the order to advance. Now I was a young man, in peak physical condition, but I didn’t think my system could take another round of hyperventilating and tachycardia. I felt I was running low on adrenaline and my left ear was still ringing loudly.

The Deputy gave the command and en masse we began to advance toward the crowd that vastly outnumbered us. The crowd just stared at us in total disbelief and then the most amazing thing happened. They scattered in all directions. Not a single one broke our line. Maybe a half-dozen bottles and bricks were thrown, but from a distance that rendered them harmless. It was classic. Just like we had practiced it in training. We took back the street and stationed a car at the supermarket. We owned the street. They always told us that the police were a quasi-military organization. Well for those few minutes on Larrabee Street we were far more military than we were quasi.

The hours wore on and we rushed from clash to clash. The ominous black clouds of smoke in the western sky were accentuated by the setting sun. We had no further phone contact with the girls and all we could do was assume that they were still together and safe.

Some thirteen hours after we had started our tour of duty we found ourselves parked at the closed gas station at Clybourn and Ogden.  A gradual relief was being effectuated and we waited for our turn to go into the station and end our tour. Things were quiet at the moment and we allowed ourselves a moment of reflection.

“John, on Larrabee, when we did that skirmish line thing… how many people were on the street?”

“Realistically? I’d say at least three or four hundred.”

“And how many live in Cabrini?”

“They say 15,000,” John answered.

I did some quick math in my head.

“So that’s about three percent, right?”

“I guess.”

A car pulled slowly into the gas station. An older black gentleman was driving, his wife in the passenger seat, three children in the back.

“Office’, can we go home now?” he nodded toward Cabrini.

We listened to the occasional gunfire. Spirals of smoke from small fires curled upwards.

“I don’t think so… especially not for them,” I said nodding toward the children.

He and his wife had some conversation and somehow settled on an alternate destination for the night.

“Thank you office’. You be safe out here, ya hear?”

We nodded as he pulled slowly out of the lot and headed north out of Cabrini.

“There’s the other 97%,” I said.

Moments later we were told to report to the station for our relief—it was about 11:30 PM. We had worked a 13½ tour on the first day of my baby furlough..

At the desk we called communications to inquire about the safety of the Eisenhower Expressway for our trek home. They told us it would be safe as long as we did not exit until we got to Central. Perfect. That was our exit. We called the girls and told them we were on our way home.

The drive west on the expressway was beyond anything we had ever seen. South of the highway in particular we saw blocks and blocks of buildings burning with no evidence of the fire department. They too had been overwhelmed and were forced to tailor their responses where they could do the most good. It was literally a war zone and it was a somber drive home. Neither John nor I had ever witnessed such devastation. We hardly spoke. We were emotionally and physically spent from the day.

The girls welcomed us with hugs and kisses and tears. The ambience of the apartment was surprisingly comforting.  The relief of being home safe was almost overwhelming. Our mood shifted. The soft warm incandescent lighting, the table set, sandwiches at the ready and of course our sweethearts. All was well. We had survived the day. We were safe and we were loved.

“You guys need to wash up,” announced the girls as they grimaced and handed us fresh towels and wash clothes.

In the small washroom John and I looked at ourselves and were surprised at the dirt and soot on our faces. We elbowed one another for access to the wash basin as we relived portions of the day.

“Those two guys in the back seat—man I thought we’d have to shovel them off the floor!”

“Not to mention cleaning the crap off the seats after they left.”

We laughed.

“And when you climbed into my lap—I thought you went queer on me.”

“Yeah, sure, you didn’t see the guy with the shotgun.”

More laughter.

“You know, you’re the only person I ever saw get knocked over by a sound.”

“Well believe it or not, my ear is still ringing. You should try it sometime.”

“No thanks, you can just tell me about it…”

More laughter. Playful shoving.

We finished cleaning up and returned to the table, but the warmth had turned to ice.

My wife was not happy.

“What’s the matter honey?” I asked, genuinely mystified.

“We spent the whole day here, worried sick about you two, not knowing what was going on” she was nearly in tears. “And now you come home and we find out you were… you were… having fun!”

Well… not really…

EPILOGUE

Later that night the midnight shift pulled the security car off the supermarket on Larrabee, the one we had retaken with our classic skirmish line. I don’t know what played into that decision, but when we returned to work the following day the store had been burned to the ground along with other small businesses in the vicinity.

John and I would work 12 hour shifts the next several days and survive without further injury. I never reported the injury to my ear, although it continued to ring for several days afterwards. We were involved in very real urban warfare and I couldn’t picture myself in an ER complaining to the doc that my ear was ringing. Specialists would later confirm that my classic “notch” hearing loss in my left ear was most definitely caused by a fellow officer with a shotgun that April day in 1968.

Some years later my wife would observe that “baby” furloughs were aptly named. In late December of 1968 our first son was born. Apparently she hadn’t stayed upset with me for long…

 


Tribute to a Socialist

Ralph's Medals

Ralph’s Medals

I lifted the frame reverently from the wall—I was holding a bit a family history and I knew it. The custom antique gold frame held ribbons, medals and a citation mounted on a green felt background. They had been awarded to my wife’s cousin Ralph almost 67 years ago. I only knew Ralph in his later years and he was a character with character.  He was without a doubt one of the most honorable men I have ever met.

* * * *

Pfc. Ralph Meinking crouched low in the snow and bitter north wind. He was just a few miles from the town of Bennwihr in the far northeastern corner of France, over 4,000 miles from home sweet home Chicago. Just ahead was the 254th Infantry Regiment’s objective for the day, a giant mound of earth that would become known as Bloody Mountain. This day however, Tuesday, January 23, 1945, it was simply known on the military charts as Hill 216.

Ralph was 31 years old and he was a Conscientious Objector. During World War II, under the law, objectors had two choices — they could go into the military but serve in the medical corps or other non-combat duties, or they were required to do “alternative service” here at home that was “work of national importance.” Ralph chose to serve in the medical corps and he wore the white arm band with the bright red cross of a Combat Medic. He was assigned to the 254th Infantry Regiment, Company D and they were preparing to assault Hill 216.

Today an American flag flies 24 hours a day atop the hill at a monument erected by the Rhin -Danube Association. Known as the Sigolsheim, France Memorial, it honors the soldiers of all American units that fought alongside of French Soldiers in the First French Army. But this bitter cold January day the Germans occupied a heavily fortified position at the top of the hill. It afforded them a commanding view of the surrounding country.

At 0645 hours, 15 minutes before “H” hour, our supporting artillery began firing in preparation for the assault. Minds and bodies became tense as the troops awaited the signal to move forward. They had seen some of war but it always had been they who awaited the enemy in their defensive positions; now it was the enemy’s turn to wait in a hole—theirs to attack. At 0700 hours they silently and unseen began to move through the deep snow, their snow capes blending in perfectly with the world of white which surrounded them.

Snow Capes (Used by permission)

For a few moments after they heard the dull explosions and saw their comrades lying on the ground, they did not realize what was happening. No shell scream, no mortar whistle accompanied the bursts. Then their minds began to work once more and they recognized the barrier the crafty Germans had erected—a field of the tiny, foot-shearing Schuh Mines. The heavy snow fall of the preceding days coupled with brisk winds had perfectly hidden the mines and the footprints of the soldiers who laid them. Pfc. Ralph Meinking had his work cut out for him as the assault continued and dead and dying soldiers littered the battlefield.

Besides wreaking physical havoc on the advancing troops of the Regiment, the mines served a second purpose; the sound of them exploding alerted the German soldiers that they were under attack. Mortar fire began to pour into the minefield, quickly followed small arms fire as well as machine guns. The concentration was extremely heavy and the assaulting force began to receive even larger numbers of casualties from this shelling as well as from the Schuh Mines. Medic Meinking was working feverishly to aid as many soldiers as he was able when he felt a searing pain in his buttocks. Shrapnel from a mortar had ripped into Ralph’s backside, but he continued to work as rapidly as he could. One, two  four, then it was ten other members of his unit were triaged, treated and sheltered as best as Ralph could accomplish before he himself fell to the pain and loss of blood from his wounds.

* * * *

Some thirty-five years later I had occasion to meet Ralph for the first time at one of his well-known annual birthday parties. I was a newlywed, my wife being a former Daughter of Charity as well as Ralph’s cousin. At the time I was working homicide for the Chicago Police Department. Ralph always held his parties at local German restaurants along Chicago’s Lincoln Avenue. He insisted on just one mandate for his parties—he designated where and who you sat with. To say his group of friends was eclectic would be a gross understatement. At my first party, I found myself sitting directly across from an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union. My bride, the former Catholic nun sat across from an Episcopal priest. Ralph, as always, sat at the bar, peering over his brood with his cigar and double martini. Both my wife and I vowed to never miss one of his parties.

We took to inviting Ralph to our home for dinner with our family. It gave us more time to visit on a personal level. Ralph was an avowed Socialist but vehemently anti-Communist. (There’s grist for spirited conversations!) He was a faculty member at Roosevelt University. He had been regular at Chicago’s “Bughouse Square” where he often mounted a soapbox to espouse his political views. Politically, he and I were about as diametrically opposed as possible. He was both articulate and good-humored and I always looked forward to his visits… and his birthday parties.

He was self-deprecating and totally without ego or arrogance.

“Ralph, I hear from the relatives that you got a Purple Heart in World War II… what was that about?” I asked one day.

“Ahhh… I got shot in the ass kid, nothin’ to talk about,” he answered.

“You were a medic?”

“Yeah!” he laughed. “Hey, did they tell you about the time I was running from one guy to another in the dark when I suddenly realized that everyone around me was speaking German? I kept my head down, finished one more and then hightailed it back to where I thought our lines were.”

He laughed heartily at himself and took a long drag on his cigar and sip from his martini.

My mother-in-law was a favorite of his and as he aged he confided to her that he was dying.

“There won’t be anything to leave you… I wish there was.”

“Ralph,” my mother-in-law replied, “The only thing I want is your Purple Heart and ribbons.”

“Now why would anyone want that!” he replied.

Never-the-less when he passed sometime later, there was an envelope with my mother-in-law’s name on it. Inside she found not only his campaign ribbons and Purple Heart medal, but also a Silver Star medal along with the citation for “magnificent courage and outstanding gallantry under fire” during the assault on Hill 216.

Pfc. Ralph Meinking: Socialist, Conscientious Objector, Combat Medic, Silver Star recipient… and patriot.

“Ahhh… I got shot in the ass kid, nothin’ to talk about.”

We miss you Ralph… you were indeed one of the most interesting persons I have ever known and at the time I didn’t even know your whole story.

Authors note: Details of the battle for Hill 216 and snow capes picture are from the 254th Infantry Regiment’s website and are used here with the gracious permission of the webmaster of the 63rd Infantry website, Fred Clinton. In email correspondence Fred also indicated that he served in the same company with Ralph and further that the 254th Regiment received a Presidential Unit Citation for their heroic actions in the battles for Colmar, France.  The regiment also received a French Croix de Guerre with palm for actions in the Colmar Pocket.